The Boston Celtics entered the playoffs as the hottest team in the league behind their destructor defense. They squared up against Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the Brooklyn Nets in what most experts saw as a series that would go at least six games, if not the full distance. Things weren’t that difficult. The Celtics dispatched the Nets 4-0 in the first round of the Eastern Conference.
The Milwaukee Bucks ended the regular season with a 15-7 record, good for third-best in the league. They entered the first round against a reeling Bulls team that finished the regular season in the opposite fashion, going 8-15, and sneaking in as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks were expected to make light work of Chicago, and things proceeded according to plan. Milwaukee handled the Bulls in five easy games, clinching the gentleman’s sweep on Wednesday night.
The Celtics and Bucks are set to square off in the Eastern Conference Semifinals as two long and athletic teams that each believe they can go the distance.
Below we’ll break down the Celtics and Bucks matchup and determine which squad will most likely advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Celtics Starting Lineup: Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams, Al Horford
Bucks Starting Lineup: Jrue Holiday, Wesley Matthews, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bobby Portis, Brook Lopez
The Celtics were in ninth place out east during the early stages of February, a ridiculed mess that was struggling just to make the play-in. Then the Celtics hit the gas going 9-2 in February, outscoring opposing teams by 14.3 points per game. In March, it was more of the same. Boston went 11-3 and concluded the season with a 4-1 record in April. Boston’s ascent from media fodder to the hottest team in the league was based around their defense.
The Celtics’ entire starting lineup lands inside the top-15 in Defensive Win Shares for the season:
Jayson Tatum: 1st in the NBA in DWS (4.6)
Robert Williams: 5th in the NBA in DWS (3.9)
Al Horford: 7th in the NBA in DWS (3.8)
Marcus Smart: 12th in the NBA in DWS (3.7)
Jaylen Brown: 15th in the NBA in DWS (3.4)
The Celtics’ nearly unheard-of representation on the Defensive Win Shares leaderboard tells us that their starting lineup is stacked full of exceptional individual defenders, all capable of guarding their man one-on-one. But more importantly, it tells us that Boston’s starting-five works together on the less fun end, as a ten-armed single-brained phantom working together on a swivel, covering each other’s minute mistakes, rarely giving an opposing player an open look.
Breaking things down individually, Marcus Smart averaged 12.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG, and 5.9 APG, AND he won the Defensive Player of the Year this season as a 6-3 guard who can guard positions 1 through 4. Jaylen Brown averaged 23.6 PPG while hitting 35.8% of his deep attempts and 76.5% of his shots at the rim as a top-10 wing in the NBA. Jayson Tatum might be making the ascent before our eyes after obliterating the Nets during the first round with 29.5 PPG, 7.3 APG, and 41.9 3P%. Tatum, known mainly as an overly talented chucker, picked the Nets apart with his passing and I.Q. Tatum’s increased attention to playmaking isn’t a one-off. He averaged 9.2 potential assists after the All-Star break, well above his career mark. Robert Williams is a future Defensive Player of the Year in the making, a ferocious defensive horror capable of shutting down guards, wings, and big men. Al Horford began the season with the “awful contract” tag pinned firmly to his back. Horford ripped that tag off by playing excellent D for the Celtics, providing the type of rim protection and backline security every championship squad needs.
As for the Bucks, they’ve taken a hit with the news that All-Star Khris Middleton will likely miss the entire series vs. Boston with a Grade 2 MCL sprain. Khris Middleton was essential in the Bucks title run last season, delivering the type of off-the-bounce mid-range game necessary to keep opposing teams honest in their coverages against Giannis. Middleton was also Milwaukee’s top wing defender, the player who’d be slotted in to slow down Jayson Tatum.
Now the Bucks will have to try to get through Boston on Giannis’s back. If you’re an NBA fan, you know Giannis is a one-of-a-kind player who’s about the surest thing to a double-double in the playoffs since Shaq. Giannis led the Bucks during their first round series against the Bulls in points (27.5), rebounds (14.5), assists (7.0), and blocks (1.8).
Giannis has his limitations as a player, though. He struggles from deep and needs space to manufacture points in the half-court off his powerful drives down the lane. Head coach Mike Budenholzer has inserted Bobby Portis into the starting lineup to replace Khris Middleton for his ability to hit from deep, alongside three more solid outside threats, Jrue Holiday, Wesley Matthews, and Brook Lopez.
Bobby Portis concluded the season as one of the hottest bargains in the league, averaging 14.6 PPG, 9.1 RPG, and 39.3% from deep while also playing high-level, 110% defense. Brook Lopez missed nearly the entire season with a back injury, but he is one of the league’s premier inside-out centers, a player who protects the paint and hits at a high clip from deep. Wesley Matthews is a solid veteran who plays excellent team defense and can connect from beyond the arc. Despite making only one All-Star game in his career, Jrue Holiday is a top-10 point guard. He averaged 18.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 6.8 APG, and 41.1 3P% during the regular season and is going to have to step up his game with Middleton out for the Bucks to have a chance to win this series.
Boston’s starting unit features five top-tier defenders, and the Bucks will be without All-Star Khris Middleton throughout the series, all of which give the Celtics the edge.
Advantage: Boston Celtics
Celtics Playoff Bench Rotation: Grant Williams, Daniel Theis, Derrick White, Payton Pritchard
Bucks Playoff Bench Rotation: Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, Jevon Carter, Luca Vildoza, Serge Ibaka, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Jordan Nwora, Rayjon Tucker
The Celtics stuck with a tight bench rotation of only four players in their first round series against the Nets. We can probably expect more of the same in the semis with one significant change: Robert Williams, coming off a knee injury, was part of Boston’s second unit versus Brooklyn, but he looked healthy and should jump back into the starting lineup versus the Bucks. That means Daniel Theis and Grant Williams will fill out Boston’s frontcourt rotation off the bench. Daniel Theis is a reliable center who plays excellent positional defense and is more than capable of knocking down shots from deep. Grant Williams transformed from an undersized big man who underperformed during the 2020-21 season to the Celtics’ most important bench player. Williams upped his defensive acumen over the offseason and has given Boston excellent all-around D while hitting at a 41.1% clip from deep. Derrick White and Payton Pritchard round out the Celtics reserve corps as two steady backcourt athletes. White is a top-tier perimeter defender who offers a bit of playmaking and rim-slashing but also has struggled from deep. Payton Pritchard is the Celtics’ least effective defender, but he has a smooth jumper from 10 feet to beyond the arc.
The Bucks, meanwhile, played eight players off the bench against the Bulls. However Vildoza, Ibaka, T. Antetokounmpo, Nwora, and Tucker were mainly garbage time players, none of whom averaged over five minutes per game during the first round and will probably see next to no action against the Celtics. Grayson Allen has been one of the most effective bench players in the postseason, blitzing the Bulls from the outside while holding his perimeter assignments to a 44.9% shooting mark in the first round. Pat Connaughton might not have the prototypical size to become a lockdown defender, but he makes up for it with one of the most powerful motors in the league. Pat is a disruptor on the less fun, and he’s an excellent long distance marksman who helps spread the floor for Giannis on offense. Jevon Carter isn’t going to give you much scoring or playmaking, but he’s morphed into one of the premier perimeter defenders in the league. He lined up against Zach LaVine for 67.3 possessions during the first round and held the Bulls All-Star to 12 total points off 38.5% from the field. Overall, Carter stymied his assignments into shooting 34.6% through five playoff games.
The Celtics and Bucks both feature solid but unspectacular benches. However, Grayson Allen’s shooting combined with Pat Connaughton’s help defense and Jevon Carter’s one-on-one D gives Milwaukee a slight advantage over Boston’s reserves.
Advantage: Milwaukee Bucks
Ime Udoka graduated from the San Antonio Spurs school of coaching, another one of Gregg Popovich’s former assistant coaches who has found success as the leading man for another team. After the Celtics stumbled out of the gate, Udoka didn’t flinch. He remained a positive force from the sideline, and his ability to stay patient in combination with his defensive wisdom are two of the primary factors behind Boston’s tremendous turnaround.
With all due respect to Udoka and the job he’s done this season in Beantown, he can’t compare to Mike Budenholzer, another Popovich protégé. Budenholzer is a two-time Coach of the Year and a champion who was directly responsible for creating the type of space-oriented offensive system that has allowed Giannis to succeed.
Advantage: Milwaukee Bucks
The Celtics Have The Top Defense In The NBA
The Chicago Bulls were mauled by the Bucks in the first round, losing 4-1, mainly because they lacked the type of big, physical wing or power forward who could slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo in one-on-one coverage. Without the ability to hinder Giannis with a single player, the Bulls were forced to use multiple defenders to cut off his drives to the rim. Giannis still averaged 28.6 points while shooting 56.8% against Chicago in the first round, but even worse, Giannis’s ability to collapse the Bulls’ defense opened up a multitude of easy outside looks for Grayson Allen. In the end, Allen hit 14 out of his 20 three-point attempts (70%) over the course of the final three games of the series, completely killing any hope the Bulls had of beating Milwaukee.
The Celtics don’t have the same defensive roster limitations as the Bulls. In fact, the Celtics might be the one team in the league most prepared to handle Giannis. Boston features Robert Williams at the power forward position, a 6-8, 237-pound quick-twitch terror who has the size and strength to limit Giannis’s dashes into the lane. Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams, and Al Horford are also three players with the size and athleticism to handle Giannis, and they will each certainly spend some time harassing the former two-time MVP.
Giannis is impossible to stop, but after the Celtics held power forward, Kevin Durant, another player who is impossible to stop, to only 22.0 on 36.5% from the field through the first three games of their series against the Nets, the blueprint is there. Giannis will get his points, but the Celtics will crowd him and make him work for everything, ensuring he shoots under 50% for the series. At the same time, they’ll hound Grayson Allen and the rest of the Bucks three-point shooters out on the perimeter, guaranteeing they don’t get bombarded from deep like the Bulls.
The Bucks Have The Championship Experience
“Don’t underestimate the heart of a champion,” right?
Climbing through four grueling playoff series to the top of the mountain is no easy feat; just ask Chris Paul, James Harden, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Luka Doncic, Devin Booker, Trae Young, DeMar DeRozan, and on and on. It takes a specific type of superstar to lead his team to the promised land, a player capable of shouldering the media pressure, fan pressure, opposing team pressure, and every other type of pressure imaginable without wincing. We know Giannis is that type of player. We don’t know about Jayson Tatum.
The Bucks are limping into the second round of the postseason without their second-best player, Khris Middleton. The Celtics’ defense also looks scary.
Milwaukee already handled a solid Bulls team quickly enough without their All-Star wing, behind Giannis’s all-around excellence, a top-tier defense, and excellent three-point shooting. Giannis will be ready, and so will Jrue Holiday and the rest of the Bucks playoff rotation. Mike Budenholzer could be the best coach in the league, and he’ll have the appropriate defensive schemes drawn up to slow down Tatum.
Which Team Will Come Out On Top?
The Bucks have the better bench and coaching, and they’ve been there before. Still, the Boston Celtics defense is a long-armed, single-minded tornado of death, and with Robert Williams in the fold, Boston won’t need to send help to slow down Giannis. The Celtics will be able to stay at home on the perimeter, and it’s hard to see the Bucks fleet of long distance shooters connecting at a high clip with a Celtics defender constantly in their face.
Perhaps if the Bucks had Khris Middleton and his one-on-one creation skills in this series, they’d have the edge. As things stand, Milwaukee won’t score enough points to win this series.
Prediction: The Boston Celtics win 4-1 against the Milwaukee Bucks